Mir Imad perfected his small hand to a degree that it is possible to call him the second Mir Ali.
—Qazi Ahmad, Gulistan-i honar, circa 1595
None of the previous masters surpassed Imad al-Hasani, who was regarded as the undisputed master of nasta‘liq. Even today in Iran, his name remains synonymous with the greatest achievement of Persian calligraphy. A member of an eminent family of sayyids (descendants of the Prophet) from Qazvin, Mir Imad began his training at the age of eight and spent most of his life in his native town. At the turn of the seventeenth century, he joined the Safavid court of Shah Abbas I (reigned 1588–1629) in Isfahan. There, Mir Imad soon fell out with Ali Riza-i Abbasi, the head of the royal workshop and the favorite calligrapher of Shah Abbas.
In 1615 Mir Imad was murdered, possibly at the command of the shah, after the calligrapher made a few imprudent comments. Others later asserted Mir Imad was in fact assassinated because of the jealousy of Ali Riza, his rival. Müstakimzade, an Ottoman biographer in the eighteenth century, claimed that Mir Imad’s sectarian orientation—he was a Sunni and a prominent member of the Sufi Naqshbandi order—was the main reason for his tragic demise. Some of his relatives, including his nephew Rashida, a renowned calligrapher in his own right, fled to the court of Shah Jahan (reigned 1628–58) in India. The Mughal ruler was a great admirer of Mir Imad and avidly collected his works.
Signed by Mir Imad al-Hasani, these two superb examples of calligraphy show the same quatrain. Even if they were not initially conceived as a pair, they were later matted with the script running diagonally from right to left and with matching borders as a facing pair in an imperial Safavid album. Seeing them together dramatically reinforces the visual power of nasta‘liq calligraphy. The two qit‘as, or calligraphic samples, present subtle differences in the tracing and shaping of some of the letters, including the sweeping horizontal strokes and artificial extensions of the word hich (“nothing”) on the third line from the top.
The text—a quatrain composed by the polymath Nasir al-Din Tusi, who died in 1274—may be understood as a reference to the art of calligraphy.
A man with skill has at every fingertip
A key to the lock of daily sustenance.
A hand from which nothing comes
Is an incredible burden to the body.
A colophon traditionally provides information on the completion of a manuscript. This example fits neatly into a triangle, a popular shape for colophons, following the last two verses of the text. It reads: “Copied by the humble and poor and sinful slave Imad al-Mulk al-Hasani, may God forgive his sins and cover his shortcomings, in the year 1023.” A painting by the celebrated Safavid artist Riza-i Abbasi occupies the rest of the space. Depicting an old man offering a flower to a youth, the image bears no direct relation to the text. Riza-i Abbasi’s signature appears in minute letters in the center of the image.
This folio comes from a manuscript that was completed a year before Mir Imad’s murder. It belongs to a copy of the Makhzan al-asrar (Treasury of secrets) by Haydar Khwarazmi and provides rare proof of the collaboration between the calligrapher Mir Imad and the painter Riza-i Abbasi, two of the greatest artists of their time. As neither man worked exclusively for the royal atelier of Shah Abbas I in Isfahan, the manuscript may have resulted from a private commission by a wealthy patron.
The practice of copying full texts in tiny nasta‘liq script reached its apogee with Mir Imad al-Hasani. This copy of the Gulistan (Rose garden) by the poet Sa‘di was probably executed shortly before the calligrapher’s sudden death in 1615, at a time when his fame had spread from Turkey to India. The script shows an extraordinary balance between unnecessary elongated strokes and elegant sweeping horizontal ones. The small-scale script is so fluid that Mir Imad is often called the “second Mir Ali,” in reference to Mir Ali Tabrizi, the originator of nasta‘liq.
The calligrapher Ali Riza-i Abbasi—whose name is easily confused with his contemporary, the painter Riza-i Abbasi—joined the workshop of Shah Abbas I in Isfahan at the end of the sixteenth century. Not only was he praised for his skills in writing the six traditional cursive scripts, but he also created numerous architectural inscriptions in Isfahan, such as those adorning the Shaykh Lutfallah mosque. Ali Riza-i Abbasi’s nasta‘liq was both elegant and refined, as is exemplified in this folded copy of poetry by Jami, who died a century earlier in 1492. The sharp terminals and overall “dry” appearance of his writing, however, were no match for Mir Imad al-Hasani’s superior style of nasta‘liq.
Ali Riza’s jealousy and hatred of Mir Imad were widely known. His contemporaries argued that Ali Riza used his influence as a confidante of Shah Abbas to have his rival eliminated.
The poem reads:
A fourteen-year-old lovely on the roof’s edge, like a
moon of fourteen [days], full in beauty
A jaunty cap topped her elegantly slender nature,
and her rosy [cheeks] were ringed by the lush
hyacinths [of her curly tresses]
She tuned her instrument to the pitch of loveliness,
and she coyly displayed her beauty.
As she glistened like the moon, prisoners [of her
love] mobbed her door and roof like the stars.
Suddenly an old man, back bent like a crescent
[moon], his skirt drenched in blood like
Turning his face hopefully toward his idol, he laid his
white hair like a carpet on the ground.
Pearls of tears he pierced with his eyelashes, and,
Scattering pearls from his two eyes, he said,
“O peri, with all my accumulated wisdom, I have lost
my good name to madness over you.
“Like a tulip I am seared with your brand; I am as
defenseless as grass in your garden.
“Gaze upon my condition with kindness; polish away
the rust of grief from my soul.”
When the youth ascertained the old man’s state, he
could not perceive any sincerity in his words.
He said, “Distracted old man, turn around and look
“For on that belvedere is one whose cheeks would
turn the world into a rose garden.
“She is like the sun in the celestial sphere; I am but
the moon. I am her least slave; she is my king.
“What am I that lovers who espy her beauty should
Mention my name?”
When the poor old man looked in the other direction
in order to see who was on the belvedere,
The youth reached out and pushed him off the roof,
flattening him like a shadow in the dust.
It is not proper for him who undertakes the road
of commerce with us to gaze anywhere else.
To be “double-signed” is to be fickle; the object
of love is one and only one.